Every four years, American soccer fans rediscover the fun of watching the U.S. women’s national team at the World Cup, and their interest bleeds over into the women’s game as a whole. National Women’s Soccer League attendance has skyrocketed since the national team claimed its third World Cup this summer, and curiosity about the team’s efforts for next year’s Rio Olympics is already rising.
In Minnesota, there hasn’t been a high-level women’s professional team since the Minnesota Lightning folded after the 2009 season. Since then, the banner for women’s soccer has been carried by the Gophers, the only NCAA Division I soccer team in the state.
Gophers coach Stefanie Golan knows her team’s importance. “We talk every preseason about what it means to wear that jersey, and part of it is representing Minnesota and the soccer community here every time you step on the field,” she said.
The team kicks off its 2015 regular season this weekend, including a Sunday game with Kansas. Golan, in her fourth season, is hoping to improve on last year’s sixth-place finish. Doing so is going to require more scoring; the Gophers scored more than one regulation goal in Big Ten play only once last year and were shut out three times.
“The teams that finish at the top, they bring an attacking swagger with them,” Golan said. “Look at [perennial powerhouse] Penn State over the years. They score an incredible amount of goals.”
To make that happen, midfielder Josee Stiever will pull the strings for the Gophers. “I think she’s one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten,” Golan said. “She has so much quality on both sides of the ball.” Stiever and standout forward Simone Kolander were named to the conference’s preseason watch list, as was defender Haley Helverson, a converted attacker who loves to get forward up the wing and contribute offensively.
That said, the key for this year’s team might be depth, not strength. The Gophers, in general, play on Thursday or Friday and again on Sunday afternoon — a short turnaround that can be a killer, even over a truncated season. Golan admitted her team began to wear down toward the end of last year and is hoping a deeper squad will help. The Gophers brought in seven freshmen this year, including five who played club soccer together for Minnesota Thunder Academy. Two of the five, April Bockin and Emily Heslin, scored last weekend in an 8-0 exhibition victory over Drake — perhaps a good sign that the attack will begin the year on a hot streak.
In a World Cup year, interest in women’s soccer is up again. To get people watching, though, what the Gophers probably have to do is what the USA women did over the summer — score goals and win games.
Soccer short takes
• It’s been a confusing start to the season for Chelsea, the defending Premier League champions. Manager Jose Mourinho confidently announced in the summer that his team didn’t need to make big signings to defend its title. Apparently that has changed just two weeks into the season, though, after Chelsea played to a 2-2 draw with Swansea and lost 3-0 to Manchester City.
Mourinho removed stalwart center back John Terry at halftime of the second game, a move widely interpreted as a plea to his owner to help him sign more defensive depth. Then in midweek, the team signed Pedro — a winger, not a defender — for $34 million. There’s very little doubt that the team will make more signings, perhaps Everton center back John Stones, who they have been rumored to be on the verge of buying all summer. Either way, Mourinho’s summer of no-signings-needed confidence is definitively over.
• The U.S. women’s national team began its so-called “victory tour” this week by crushing Costa Rica twice, 8-0 and 7-2. While this was supposed to be the team’s best preparation for next year’s Olympics qualifying, coach Jill Ellis offered no sign that this was anything but a celebration. That might be fine, but the games took players away from their NWSL teams, which are starting the stretch run.
As former USA midfielder Aly Wagner tweeted, as part of a much longer rant, “Ultimately, players can’t only hope for a financially lucrative career by being one of the 18 or 23 who make a world event team.” The NWSL needs to be a priority, not a celebratory beatdown of the region’s third-best team.
• When Minnesota United sold standout Miguel Ibarra to Club Leon in Mexico, there were more than a few that worried that the American would get lost in the shuffle at his new club. Ibarra has yet to start a Liga MX game, but he has scored in both of Leon’s cup matches this year and earned a couple of substitute appearances in the league as well.
It all points to more improvement from Ibarra, more Liga MX minutes and perhaps a return to the U.S. men’s national team, shouldn’t be that far behind.
Weekend watch guide
Premier League: Tottenham at Leicester City, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBC Sports Network. Leicester City has surprised everyone by starting 2-0. It might be a long season, but the Foxes are already aiming for the magic 40-point mark, which should see them avoid relegation; another win would put them nearly a quarter of the way there. Tottenham blew a late 2-0 lead last week to Stoke City and lost its opener on an own goal.
NASL: Minnesota United at Tampa Bay, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 45. Nothing is going right for the Rowdies, losers of five of seven, including a midweek loss at Indy. In response, the team fired coach Thomas Rongen and GM Farrukh Quraishi on Friday. This might not be a great advantage for the Loons; the same firings happened in Fort Lauderdale in the spring, and United lost 3-2 to the Strikers the following Saturday.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at FC Ingolstadt 04, 8:30 a.m. Sunday, FS1. In 2004, Ingolstadt was a newly formed team in the German fourth division. Now it’s ready for its first home match in the Bundesliga, against a potentially rejuvenated Dortmund side. BVB has yet to lose under new coach Thomas Tuchel, though it had to score four times to come back from a shocking 3-0 deficit against small Norwegian side Odd in midweek.
MLS: New York City at Los Angeles, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. This is the match that MLS most wants you to watch — the stars of Los Angeles against the stars of NYC FC. Pirlo! Gerrard! Lampard! Villa! It’s all of your favorite players from the 2006 World Cup! Criticize the league all you want, and we’ve said plenty about its focus on European veterans, but the attention heaped on this game is why the league goes this route.